As a supporter of Mercy Ships I have over the years developed an interest in the whole area of seaborne relief and development. I read with interest of the Ship to Gaza Sweden movement for the first time some months ago. So it was with interest and sadness that I read today in the paper of the recent events off the Gaza coast when the Israelis responded with force to the flotilla that Ship to Gaza Sweden is a part of. There is no doubt that there was an agenda beyond pure humanitarian relief involved, and it was no surprise that the Israelis acted in the way they did, given their long standing suspicion of the Palestinians and any who support them. Nevertheless, the loss of nine lives has done nothing to help the negative image of Israel which is so readily reported on by the world press. Whether the Israeli response in boarding the vessels was justified or not is one thing, but there is no question that the loss of life is difficult to justify under any circumstances unless the perpetrators were fired on first, which they apparently were not.
Henning Mankell, the well known Swedish author of the Wallander novels and films, was among a number of Swedes who were on board one of the ships, and was subsequently arrested by Israeli authorities. He has since been deported and arrived safely back in Sweden.
Mercy Ships has been criticised in past years, as have many Christian aid organisations, for providing humanitarian relief with strings attached – relief in return for belief. I have had discussions with people who have said that they could never support an relief organisation which is openly Christian because the provision of aid puts them in a position of power over the recipients of that aid and therefore applies undue pressure to such recipients to convert. Mercy Ships has gone to lengths to make clear that their intentions in the developing world are not proselytism but expressing the nature and character of a loving God.
The events in the Middle East show the danger of political alignment in the provision of aid, and yet it is always a balancing act. All organisations have reasons for doing what they do, whether they are religious or atheistic, political or apolitical. The question is always whether aid should be withheld because some proportion of the world’s population do not approve of or agree with such reasons.
One thing is clear. To use humanitarian aid as a cover for the support of violence (in the forms of weapons or ammunition) is unjustifiable. It seems unlikely that the Ship to Gaza movement is doing that, but it is perhaps understandable that Israel suspected it.